If a trip to the south of France isn’t in your travel budget this year, don’t dismay. Ellen Sussman’s A Wedding in Provence will transport you – jet-lag free – to an inn surrounded by lush vineyards in the coastal town of Cassis.  Sussman’s descriptions of the scent of lavender,  taste of champagne, and the chill of seawater are equally matched by the complex interplay between the cast of characters.

A wedding invitation on the very first page sets the tone, announcing the betrothal of Olivia, an artistic director of a theater company based in San Francisco, to Brody, a Wyoming veterinarian, set to take place at Olivia’s best friend’s picturesque inn, La Maison Verte.

First off, Olivia is not the typical blushing bride. She’s a divorced mom in her fifties, worried that Brody’s move to San Francisco will in some ways emasculate her Western hero – he’s already having a difficult time finding a job on the West coast. Olivia is both fallible and undeniably appealing, and Sussman leaves no doubt about the chemistry between the bride and groom to be. It’s a true joy to meet a real-life heroine, one who worries about her aging body while at the same time enjoying and embracing her sexuality.

Although the wedding party is small, each guest comes with more than carry-on baggage. Olivia’s twenty-something daughters, the wild Nell and staid Carly, clash early on, when Nell brings along a magnetic and perhaps dangerous stranger she met on the plane. This element of menace, in such an idyllic setting, permeates the scenes involving the two girls, as Nell tries to right herself after a disastrous relationship, and Carly yearns to break free her rigid life as a Silicon Valley executive.

While Olivia and Brody are embarking on a new life together, the marriage of Olivia’s best friend Emily strains under accusations of infidelity. Brody’s mother has arrived solo, bereft that her husband has walled himself off from his family and refused to come. As the plot unfolds, couples form and break apart and form again, reflecting real-life drama in a way that’s both accurate and poignant.

The pacing is as swift as the mistral that sweeps down from the hills the night before the wedding, bringing rain and wind and threatening the beauty of the day. By then, the wedding guests, bride and groom have become our friends, ones whom we care about and worry for. Wisely, Sussman doesn’t tie up every loose end in a pretty bow. The characters, by the story’s end, are wiser and closer to happiness, but there are more decisions, and possibly mistakes, to be made. Just like real life.

A WEDDING IN PROVENCE by Ellen Sussman/Ballantine/July 15

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